From Lee Daniels (Empire), the Fox series Star follows a trio of talented singers, desperate for a new start and with ambitions of stardom, as they navigate the cut-throat music business and try to survive all of the sharks they cross paths with on their road to success. Star (Jude Demorest) is a tough-as-nails young woman that came up in the foster care system, who decides to track down her sister, Simone (Brittany O’Grady), and her Instagram bestie, Alexandra (Ryan Destiny), to follow their dream of becoming music superstars, if only it were that easy. The series also stars Queen Latifah and Benjamin Bratt, and features Lenny Kravitz, Naomi Campbell and Tyrese Gibson.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, actress/singer/songwriter Jude Demorest talked about the extensive audition process for the show, being put through the ringer, her homework for the role, why she’s honored to work with Lee Daniels, the craziest place she’s seen a billboard for the show, the issues they’ll tackle this season, the roller coaster ride these girls will go through, how cool it is to get to perform original songs, having to give Benjamin Bratt a lap dance, and working with this incredible cast.
Collider: When this was brought to your attention, what were you told about it? Did you know that this was a show created by Lee Daniels, who had turned Empire into such a huge success, and did you have any idea exactly what you were getting yourself into?
JUDE DEMOREST: Oh, yeah! That’s a great question. I knew that it was Lee Daniels, I knew the magnitude of it, and I knew that it was following Empire, but that it wasn’t like Empire and it was actually going to be more like his films, which made me want to do it that much more. Did I know what I was signing up for? No, I did not, at all! You never do with Lee, that’s the thing I’ve learned. But, I’m very, very glad that I did sign up.
What was the audition process like for this? Was it very extensive?
DEMOREST: It was the most extensive audition process that I’ve ever done, or even heard of. Most auditions, all the way to the end, are about three or four in total and maybe a meeting with the director. This was 10 or 11 auditions just with Lee, before we tested with Fox. Every day, we would show up and do another thing and jump through another hoop. One day, we’d come in and The Dream would be sitting there and we’d be singing for him. I’m not even making that up. That happened. Or we’d come in and Frank Gatson, Beyonce’s choreographer taught us an 8-count to one of his Beyonce songs. It was just wild stuff. And then, one day, I came in and it was just me and Brittany [O’Grady] in a room, and they asked us to get to know each other. We didn’t have the roles yet, but as soon as I met her, I was like, “That’s my sister.” So, it was very extensive, very unique and really cool to see a director who was so involved and in love with his show.
Lee Daniels has said that when you walked into his office, he knew that you were this character, but he told you that he didn’t like you because he didn’t want you to know how much he actually liked you.
DEMOREST: Oh, yeah! After those 10 auditions, it was a Friday and I’d been there a million times, but they called me and asked if I could come in and I said, “Sure!” At that point, I had been called in so many times that I stopped saying yes to any other auditions and just waited for them to call me every day ‘cause that’s what was happening. So, I went in and thought it was going to be another audition, but instead, it was just Lee in his office. He said, “Hey Jude, I just wanted to sit with you, one-on-one, spirit to spirit.” That was a trick because I really thought that meant something good. And then, he said, “I just wanted to let you know that I don’t like you.” I was like, “Oh, okay.” I was trying to keep a brave face. I don’t know who he thought I was. I wasn’t going to cry. But I was like, “Okay, well, that’s terrible! Maybe we could get to the bottom of why that is and figure out how you could like me.” I didn’t know what else to say. I was so confused, and I just started crying. That was it. He sent me home in tears. Now that I know him, I understand that it was him fighting with himself and going, “No, it’s impossible that I found her on the first day. This can’t be right. I’m going crazy. She thinks she has it in the bag, so I’m gonna let her know she doesn’t.” But, I didn’t know him. I just thought he genuinely didn’t like me. So, I went home and cried and was like, “I didn’t get the part.” It was terrible! But, now I know Lee and we have about 250 more of those stories.
You’ve said that Lee Daniels gave you homework for this role. What did he want you to do, and how did that help inform what you’re doing on the show?
DEMOREST: The first audition was with Lee and his sister (Leah Daniels Butler), the casting director for Star and Empire, and all of his work, and she’s amazing. For the second audition, she brought me back to meet with him. After I was done, he said, “I want you to watch the documentary Girlhood,” which I had actually already seen, and he wanted me to watch Valley of the Dolls, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and like six other Bette Davis. He also had me watch Female Trouble, which was completely traumatizing. What gave me an idea of where he was going with this show was watching Female Trouble. I was like, “All right, we’re going there, in every way.” But, it was real homework. When I came back in, he was like, “What did you think of them? Did you get why I had you watch those?” And we’d talk about the characters and which ones were a part of Star. It was, by far, the most learning I’ve ever done in an audition. It was really cool for me.
Especially knowing the opportunities that Lee Daniels has given to other actresses, like Gabourey Sidibe and Taraji P. Henson, what does it mean to you to be a part of this show and to get to work and collaborate with someone like him?
DEMOREST: It means everything to me. He doesn’t know that when I was 17 or 18, my worked for this woman who was doing the L.A. Film Festival and Precious was there premiering. She had extra backstage passes, and I snuck onto the red carpet to try to meet Lee. I didn’t. I met everybody but him. I watched him, Mariah [Carey], Gabby and Oprah do this panel, and I just sat there in awe thinking, “I want to be a part of something this important or this true, with that kind of story.” It’s why I’m an actress. I want to be a part of telling important stories. The storytelling of it all is what’s fun and purposeful to me. So, working with Lee Daniels, of all people, means that I not only get to tell entertaining, interesting and ridiculously wild stories, but also true stories and important stories that can change minds and open up conversations. To me, there’s no greater honor than that. It’s a pretty big deal.
What’s the craziest place you’ve seen a poster or billboard for this show, with yourself on it?
DEMOREST: The craziest place that I’ve seen a billboard was when my friend from back home in Detroit was driving to her mom’s house, which I went to a million times when I was little. It’s right where I grew up. It’s an exit that I passed probably every day of my life wondering, “When am I gonna get out of here? When is this gonna be over? Why am I here?” It’s right on the 8-Mile exit, off the freeway in Detroit. I told my mom and my mom told my aunt, who immediately drove there and took a picture and sent it to me. There’s one in Times Square and there’s one on Sunset Blvd. that I know about because people sent me pictures of them. But there’s something about seeing a billboard in the place that you grew up in and thought you’d never make it out of that I could cry right now, just thinking about it because it’s so crazy to me. I passed that exit, being my melodramatic little kid self, staring out the window in the rain, thinking that I was in a music video and wondering, when is this gonna be over? Now, when a little kid passes that exit, I am on that billboard. They can look at that the way that I looked at Eminem and thought, “Oh, my god, he’s from down the street and he really made it out!” That was the first time I thought I could, when I found out who he was. I was much too young to be listening to his songs. I was seven, listening to “Yellow Brick Road.”
In the pilot, alone, this show explores a lot of different issues, from celebrity to gender to race. Will that continue to be the case, throughout the series?
DEMOREST: Yeah, the show is always going to do that. I read the pilot and I was so excited that someone was going to tackle those issues and that I was going to be a part of it. And it’s done in such a new way, a challenging way, and a brave way. I think that we’re definitely going to continue to do that, but since the presidential election, Lee’s mind has taken a turn, so the way he’s writing the show took a turn. So, while we’re still tackling issues like we were in the pilot, mid-way through the season, it gets even more politically charged, in a different way. I think people will feel that tonal change. The pre-Trump/post-Trump change will be palpable. It’s interesting, but it’s so important that we do say something, so I’m glad that we are. If anyone’s afraid that we’re going to tackle an issue, never fear. We will take on anything, which will make some people very happy and some people very upset, but it will be worth it.
What can you say to tease the journey that not only your character goes on this season, but this trio of girls who are in this group?
DEMOREST: I don’t want anyone to assume that you’re going to watch these girls rise to stardom and take over the world. The cool thing about this show is that it’s not that. What you’re going to watch is their journey of not making it, or for a very long time, and all of the grimy, gritty things that they find themselves willing to do for fame. And you’re going to get to see their failures. That’s the part that makes this show cool. You’re going to get to see what really happens when girls try to be pop stars, and how many times they have to fail, and how many times they have to do things that they regret or that they’re proud of, to get to the top. You’re going to get to fully go on that journey, with all three girls. And you’re also going to get to see the ins and outs of the really manic relationships between these three girls that are thrown together and who are on such a fast ride together. It’s really cool.
Star wants to be a star, but do you think she has what it takes to make it, especially knowing how difficult and crazy this business can be?
DEMOREST: No one’s ever asked me that! I haven’t thought about that. I do think the group has what it takes. I think that Star, on her own, is weaker than she thinks, like we all are. That’s a lot of the point of the show. Star thinks she can make it, the same way I thought I could make it when I was a little kid, hating life. But, the truth is that I needed a lot of people and I needed a lot of prayers. Star is so determined and ambitious that she’s self-destructive. So, I think that Star has what it takes, if she’s smart enough to keep those girls around to keep grounded. Hopefully, we’ll find out ‘cause I don’t even know.
Playing someone in a girl group, you get to perform original songs. What’s it been like to get to do that?
DEMOREST: Oh, my god, it’s so cool! As an actress, you don’t always get to do things like this. You don’t get to shoot little mini music videos in every episode and get to experience the actual pop star life within your TV show. It’s cool because it’s also a boot camp of training for everything I would ever need to know how to do, as an actress. I think I will come out on the other side, ready for anything. That’s the coolest part about it.
What was it like to have to do the lap dance for Benjamin Bratt, especially in that outfit?
DEMOREST: You are worried about it, the whole time. I came out in that gold catsuit and I looked at Lee and said, “Lee, you can see my uterus in this! I can’t wear this! This is way too tight!” And he was like, “Just make it work!” So, when we went to shoot the scene, I actually said, “I have a camel toe in this.” And Cotton goes, “It’s all I had that would fit your little ass.” I put that line in because I wanted people to know that I knew this was crazy. The outfits that I have to wear sometimes, I am alarmed. To be in that outfit, giving a lap dance to Benjamin Bratt, who I grew up watching on Law & Order, didn’t make it less weird. And then, on top of it, all I could think of the whole time was, “Is my grandpa watching this?” It’s not easy, at all. Those are the hardest scenes. They’re crazy! Plus, the whole time in rehearsal, I have to give the stand-in for Ben the same lap dance, over and over. I think I could join Magic City, at this point, if the show doesn’t work out.
How is it to have someone like Queen Latifah around, on set? Has she given you any meaningful advice, or is it just cool to watch her work?
DEMOREST: Yeah, that’s what it is. She’s very chill. She’s not the type of person who walks in and says, “Hey, girls, this is how you do it.” She doesn’t really force that kind of advice on us. But what she does, that she doesn’t even know she does, is work like a pro. We just get to sit there and be like, “Oh, that’s how you do that.” We’re newcomers, so we’ll get nervous about something and she’s like, “Nah, you’ve got it.” Having her say, “You got it,” makes you believe in yourself, for just that scene, and that’s all you need. She’s amazing! She’s really cool to work with.
This show also has Lenny Kravitz, Naomi Campbell and Tyrese Gibson, among others. Every time someone new comes on set, is it just crazy?
DEMOREST: Yes! The craziest day was when I was standing in the beauty salon doing a scene with me and the girls, and Naomi Campbell, Lenny Kravitz and Queen Latifah were in the scene. I was looking up at all three of these people like, “What is my life, and how did this happen?” I was Facetiming my brother at lunch and Naomi was standing behind me and I was like, “This is Naomi.” He was like, “Oh, okay,” but didn’t realize who I was talking about. And then, I introduced him to Lenny and he was like, “What are you doing?!” And I was like, “I’m sorry! This is literally who’s standing here!” It was so funny! He was like, “What is your life?!” And I was like, “I don’t know, anymore!”
Obviously, there must be some nerves and some pressure that comes along with taking on the title role of such a prominent TV series. So, is it reassuring that you have at least two other actresses alongside of you?
DEMOREST: Yeah, it’s 100% the coolest thing about it. To go through all of this by myself would be cool, but to be able to look over at each other, wide-eyed, and be like, “Is this really happening?!,” is the most amazing feeling in the world because you know you’re not crazy. It’s happening to all of us. It’s crazy and terrifying, but we’re going to be okay.
Star debuts with a special preview on Fox on December 14th, and then returns on January 4, 2017.